Politics & Policy

Irrational Green Exuberance

The last few years have witnessed an Internet-stock bubble and a real-estate bubble. Could we be approaching the bursting point of the climate-change bubble?

The intensity of the current climate crusade, Al Gore’s $300 million ad campaign, and Time’s fifth panicky global-warming cover in three years (“Be Worried, Be Very Worried” read the 2006 cover) are all good contrary indicators suggesting that the hysteria is reaching its terminal stage. Like mortgage-backed securities dealers, the climate campaigners are in a panic because the public isn’t buying what they’re selling. The latest annual Gallup survey on the environment shows that only 37 percent of Americans say they worry “a great deal” about global warming, down from 41 percent last year, about the same level as a decade ago. Americans put global warming way down on their list of major environmental concerns, behind air and water pollution, toxic waste, and the loss of open space.

The League of Conservation Voters is apoplectic that the TV anchors aren’t asking more climate-change questions in the presidential primary debates — and, if global warming is indeed the gravest threat in the history of mankind, they do have a point. Perhaps the blasé performance of the media on this matter is telling us something.

Thirty-five years ago, political scientist Anthony Downs discerned what he called the “issue-attention cycle,” a five-stage process during which the public and the media grow alarmed over an issue, agitate for action, generate reams of scary headlines, and then begin to draw back as they gradually recognize that the problem has been exaggerated and they get a good look at the price tag for sweeping action.

While Downs thought that the issue-attention cycle for the environment would last longer than for most issues, global warming is starting to follow the same familiar pattern as the “population bomb” and the “we’re-running-out-of-everything” scares of the 1970s. The planet’s coldest winter in 30 years has cooled the fever of climate panic. And while one cool year does not a trend make, a few more cool years and there will be a crisis in climate alarmism. Meanwhile, the gung-ho Europeans are looking for a way to retreat gracefully from their fulsome rhetoric as the real price of cutting emissions becomes apparent. U.N. officials now concede that prospects look grim for a successor treaty to Kyoto.

It may be about to burst, but the climate bubble is still sufficiently robust that the U.S. appears determined to enact the climate policy equivalent of Sarbanes-Oxley — an emissions-trading scheme that will deliver high costs while achieving only modest reductions. Meanwhile, concerns about soaring food prices and groundwater depletion are making people think twice about ethanol, though Washington marches on with its array of subsidies and mandates.

One of these days, the editors of Time and other publications are going to grow bored of producing yet another “green” issue and tired of writing editorials demanding “action now,” just as the media grew exhausted by the population explosion, AIDS, urban sprawl, homelessness, and other former front-burner stories. No doubt another terrifying novelty will be discovered (the threat of Earth’s magnetic field weakening perhaps?) because it is the nature of the media and activist groups to find some new panic to ride. But the current green mania may be reaching a weary, used-up phase that signals a turning point.

Once the climate bubble finally deflates, we can stop tilting at windmills and get back to solving environmental problems through economic growth and market-driven innovation rather than dirigiste dictates from Washington and the U.N.


The Latest